If a taste for traditional Christmas foods were a gene, I was surely born with a defective one. You could populate a small planet with the number of fruitcakes that have made me gag, and if there were an award for gastronomic martyrdom it would surely go to me for all the sawdust-flavored Christmas cookies I've swallowed. I've politely licked my lips after eating mealy German lebkuchen and not-so-politely spit out my first ever taste of a British mince pie. I unhappily soldiered through a whole bowlful of dried fruit compote one Christmas in Spain, and I felt my stomach seize up after one leaden bite of steamed Christmas pudding in Ireland. After contemplating the idea that maybe I do suffer from some kind of rare genetic deficiency that prevents me from enjoying these seasonal delights, I decided instead it may just be a blessing in disguise - after all, if I simply avoided all the calorie-traps of the season, I would have that much less dietary damage control to contend with come January. This might have actually worked, were there not one deliciously creamy exception to the rule.
In a word: eggnog. I love it. I also wait all year for it. I usually start thinking about eggnog in early spring, when the memories of last year's indulgence are a distant memory and the next season's batch lies an interminable wait away. By late summer I'll have started suffering tremors and sweating at the thought of it, and by autumn I'll be calculating exactly how many days, hours and minutes remain until I can legitimately take my first sip. In the U.S. this date is decided for me since eggnog doesn't hit the shelves until a few weeks before Christmas. In eggnog-less Britain, however, I'm working from a blank slate: if I can make it, I can drink it, no matter what time of year, and it's only a vague sense of seasonal impropriety that has kept me from declaring it a year-round libation.
The exact nature of eggnog sometimes confuses non-Americans. Unlike brownies and chocolate chip cookies, this particular North American culinary heavyweight hasn't gained popularity across many international frontiers. Several sources tell me that its origins actually lie in England, where a drink called posset was popular in the nineteenth century among those who could afford dairy, eggs and brandy. Nowadays I'm told it goes by the name 'egg flip' in the British Isles, and takes the form of a hasty concoction of booze, eggs and sugar - but let's be honest, I've never been standing around at an office Christmas party and had anyone offer me a cup of egg flip to ease the pain. If it exists, it must be rare.
I also encountered something mildly reminiscent of eggnog in Germany and Holland - Eierlikör, or Advocaat, an intensely sweet liquor flavored with egg yolks and cream that makes frequent appearances in tiny glasses and the interiors of cheap chocolate assortments. I'm told by Germans that nowadays it's associated with conservative traditions and grandparents' liquor cabinets, neither of which contribute much to its dwindling popularity. In any case, it certainly can't hold a candle to real eggnog, with its silken, custardy texture, fragrant bouquet of spices and creamy sweetness that slides down your throat like crushed velvet. Eggnog stands up to the punchy fire of strong liquor, but is comforting and flavorful enough to also be quietly sipped on its own. And until you've made your own eggnog, you don't know just how heavenly it can be.
This eggnog, a recipe I've been tweaking for years, is extraordinary. But you don't have to take my word for it. The first Christmas I spent in Scotland I whipped up a big batch to quell my holiday homesickness and passed it around to a number of skeptical friends. Everyone liked it, but one friend in particular, who comes from India and had no experience whatsoever with nogs, possets or flips, fell head over heels at his first taste. He was so smitten, in fact, that he requested a gallon of it for his next birthday. The only problem was that his birthday is in July. "I'm sorry but eggnog is a Christmas drink - I can't make in July!" I told him regretfully. He was utterly devastated. "But why not?"
Yes, why not? Most Christmas sweets I'm happy to refuse to allow on my table at other times because really, once a year is already more than enough. But to restrict the consumption of things we really love based on the date alone - well, perhaps that's just silly. Life's short enough on enjoyment already.
So yes, my friend now happily gets his eggnog in July, and I get what I secretly wanted all along - another legitimate excuse to drink it.
Yield: just under 2 quarts/liters (recipe can easily be doubled)
4 cups (1 lt) whole milk
1 1/3 cup (270g) sugar
1 vanilla bean
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 cinnamon sticks
generous 1/4 teaspoon salt
6 large egg yolks, at room temperature
2 cups (500ml) heavy cream, cold
freshly-ground nutmeg, for sprinkling
booze of your choice: rum, brandy, bourbon... (optional)
Heat the milk and sugar in a saucepan with a lid. Split open the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the milk; cut the pod into four or five pieces and add it too along with the mace, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt. Bring everything just to a boil, remove from the heat and let steep, covered, for at least 30 minutes.
Return the pan to the heat and bring to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat. In a bowl whisk the egg yolks until frothy. Temper the yolks by adding about 1/2 cup of the hot milk to them, stir well and then add them into the pan with the rest of the milk, stirring quickly until incorporated. Continue to heat the mixture, stirring constantly, until it thickens slightly and coats the back of a spoon, being careful not to let it boil. Remove the pan from the heat and quickly stir in the heavy cream—this will bring the temperature down and prevent it from curdling as it sits. Transfer to a covered container and chill several hours until cold. Strain the mixture through a fine-meshed sieve, discarding the vanilla and cinnamon. Serve cold, sprinkling each serving with more nutmeg before drinking (this is de rigueur). Drink as is, stir in some of your favorite booze (I like dark rum), or use to whiten (and sweeten) your morning coffee. Eggnog will keep up to a week in the refrigerator.